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Unanswered questions in Mass. casino gambling push

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press Writer / June 12, 2010

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BOSTON—Massachusetts lawmakers are scrambling to fill in the thorny details of a bill designed to throw open the state's doors to casino gambling.

With just seven weeks left until their formal session ends, there are many unanswered questions: How many casinos will be built? Where they will be located? How much revenue will they generate? How many jobs will be created? And will the state's existing racetracks will be allowed to install slot machines?

The state will get a little closer to answering those questions when the Senate releases its version of the bill on Friday.

Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, said debate on the bill should begin on June 22 or 23, once senators have been given a chance to read the legislation and file amendments.

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, one of those writing the legislation, said the final bill will be posted on the Senate's website before the debate, along with a report detailing anticipated revenues and job estimates. Senate Ways and Means Chairman Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, said the job estimates could be released as early as this week.

The Senate is sensitive to criticism leveled at the Massachusetts House, which did not hold a public hearing on their casino bill before debating and voting on it. The Senate held a packed public hearing this week after releasing a draft version of their bill.

There are key differences between the two bills. While the House would allow two casinos and 750 slot machines at each of the state's four racetracks, the Senate bill would license three casinos with no racetrack slots.

One of the biggest questions in the Senate bill is where to locate the casinos.

Rosenberg said the final bill would create three geographic zones and allow one casino in each. The final lines of those zones have yet to be drawn, although most assume they would allow a western Massachusetts casino and another on the state's south coast.

Rosenberg said the final zones will be dictated by market forces.

"What's got to drive it is the market, not politics and traditional geography," Rosenberg said. "It's about the market."

Another unresolved question is how much the state will charge casino operators for a license.

The House bill requires a $500 million private investment from each of the resort casinos and $75 million from each of the race tracks. It would also deliver $260 million in upfront licensing fees.

The Senate hasn't yet identified a minimum license fee, but Senate leaders say two of the casinos would be competitively bid, with the third going to an Indian tribe.

That raises another question: Which tribe?

The state's two federally recognized tribes -- the Mashpee Wampanoags and the Aquinnah Wampanoags -- both say they want to build a casino in Fall River.

The Mashpees already have reached a deal with the city to develop a casino, hotels, a shopping mall and convention center on a 300-acre parcel along Route 24.

The Aquinnahs say they want to build a casino on a 240-acre parcel near Route 195. They say their plan would let Fall River build a biotechnology park on the land sought by the Mashpees.

The Patrick administration has cast doubt on the Aquinnah proposal, saying that when the Aquinnah received federal recognition in 1987, they agreed any land they acquired would be subject to state and local laws, meaning they couldn't create a casino without state approval.

The Aquinnah already have land on Martha's Vineyard, which is not seen as a practical location for a casino.

There are some questions that won't be answered until after a bill becomes law.

Among those is who will be appointed to a newly created five-member Massachusetts Gaming Commission. Under the draft version of the Senate bill, the governor gets to appoint three of the commissioners, including the chairman, while the attorney general and state treasurer each appoint one.

The biggest unanswered question of all, of course, is whether a final version of the casino bill will be passed by lawmakers.

Even Rosenberg isn't sure how he'll vote.

"I will not decide and say I'm going to vote on a bill on casinos until I actually see the final bill," he said. "I'm neither morally opposed to gaming but I understand the significant social and economic impacts of it."

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